Roee Chen: Enigma, Director


Best of Enemies: Herman (Israel Demidov) and Masha (Efrat Ben Zur) getting cozy on stage and on screen.
Best of Enemies: Herman (Israel Demidov) and Masha (Efrat Ben Zur) getting cozy on stage and on screen.

By David Stromberg

Published April 22, 2009, issue of May 01, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

How does a Sephardic Jew whose father’s family has lived in Israel since the Spanish Inquisition come to translate and adapt the quintessentially Ashkenazic Isaac Bashevis Singer for the originally Russian-speaking Jaffa-based Gesher Theatre? According to Roee Chen, it’s done by pretending to be someone you aren’t. “I was 19 and needed a job,” Chen explained. “Someone told me that Gesher was looking for a speech coach. I didn’t know what that was, but I was arrogant, so I went there to tell them that I was the new speech coach.”

After sitting through a four-hour rehearsal, he was informed by one of the actors that the theater had already hired someone. Nonetheless, he waited for the theater’s director, Yevgeny Arye. When the now legendary director emerged, Chen began to speak to him in Russian, a language he had taught himself. Arye, apparently confused by Chen’s non-Russian appearance, replied in English. By the end of their conversation, Chen was hired.

Chen began working intensely with the actors on their Hebrew pronunciation — at the same time, he was teaching himself the job. “To speak as an actor,” he explained, “you have to analyze the text as if you’re not going to say it, and say it as if you’ve never analyzed it.” After six months, though, Chen quit. “When you’re in the theater, you have no connection to the outside world. It doesn’t matter if it’s day or night, winter or summer — the only thing you see is the stage lights. I was very young; I wanted to write, to have fun. I dreamed of going to Paris.” In order to leave the theater, he lied in the middle of rehearsal that he had been accepted to the Sorbonne. Everyone immediately started to celebrate and drink on his behalf. “I was so ashamed that I actually went to Paris,” Chen said. A month and a half later, he returned to Israel, penniless.

Rather than rejoin the theater, Chen went to work as an editor for Ma’ariv Publishing. “I was no more an editor than I was a speech coach,” he admitted. But soon, he began to not only edit books, but also publish his own translations from the Russian — including works by Daniil Kharms, Varlam Shalamov and Ivan Bunin, as well as Dostoevsky and Pushkin. He also published his first novel, “The Ink Horses” (Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2005), which is set in Jerusalem and revolves around a commune of young people who live in a fantasy of re-created 18th-century balls — a gesture to classical Russian literature and the Bohemian circle of Russian-speaking Israeli poets, such as the late Anna Gorenko, who gathered in the abandoned Arabic village of Lifta on the edge of Jerusalem.

“When I was a teenager,” he explained, “Russian literature offered me a way to get out of the Israeli realism which is everywhere: television, film, radio, army, politics. At some point, I realized that I was reading about Russian heroes… from which about a million people had just come to Israel.” It was then that he started teaching himself Russian and, as he describes it, went out searching for these literary heroes among the Russian speakers surrounding him: “I was literally looking for Pechorin and Anna Karenina.” Chen never found his Russian heroes, but he did find Russian-speaking actors who would play them in the Gesher Theatre, to which he returned as dramaturge in 2007. Since returning, he has adapted Dostoevsky, Gogol, Chekhov, and others for the stage, but his first major collaboration with Arye was Singer’s “Enemies, a Love Story,” which appeared at the Gesher for the first time in March of this year.

“When I first came back, Arye called me from New York and asked me whether I’d ever read ‘Enemies,’” Chen recalled. He had read not only “Enemies,” but also most of Singer’s work. “I told Arye I was already writing.”

He got started immediately, and “worked like crazy,” but it took longer than a year to turn the book into a play. “There were a lot of problems,” Chen said. “First, the material — with its many locations and Singer’s special kind of looping action — works better as a film.” As an example, he mentions the success of Paul Mazursky’s 1989 film adaptation. Another issue was that the hero, Herman Broder, has a lot of interior monologues that, Chen says, can be reproduced in the theater but will always lose in competition with literature. Finally, he explains, Singer is a very strong author — perhaps stronger than his characters — and one has to, so to speak, turn down Singer’s volume to hear his characters.

Chen explains that there’s a moment in adapting when you understand that you have to take charge — to become a tunnel between the material and the audience, stay in the shadows but remain in complete control. He and Arye worked together, playing out the scenes in a mix of Hebrew, Russian and English, while Chen, who had previously taken Yiddish courses at Hebrew University, referred to Singer’s original on his own. Sections that he cut had to be reinvented and merged theatrically, and in order to tie together the work, he invented a few scenes of his own. When the text was complete, Arye brought in set designer Semyon Pastukh, who lives in New York and works in Russia, having started his career at Leningrad’s Academic Maly Drama Theatre and gone on to work with the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg and the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Pastukh contributed to the play’s overall stage dynamic, Chen explained, “designing the stage like the subway, the tracks of which connect with the trains that carried Jews east during the Holocaust. There’s also an element of the stray Jew, and the constantly moving platform is like the ground literally always moving underneath his feet.”

The play opened, and already it has been nominated for the play of the year and best director categories of the Israel Theater Prize. Still, Chen says, he also has been blamed by several critics for integrating too many funny phrases and comedic punches. “In Israel, when you speak about the Holocaust or Yiddish culture, you have to be serious,” he said. “In a sense, they’re blaming me for the same thing that Singer was always blamed for — lowering the value of the Holocaust by combining it with comedy and sexual desire.”

Despite his own 10-year romance with the theater, Chen still has an ambivalent relationship with the artistic medium. “Who is this sloppy guard who let theater slip into the 21st century?” he asked. “I mean, grownups with costumes and makeup pretending to be someone else?” He believes that as long as today’s theater tries to compete with cinema, it will lose. “Theater will essentially always be about the actor and the word,” he said. “The theater that lasts uses technology, but doesn’t rely on it. It’s theater that knows what it is.”

David Stromberg is a Jerusalem-based writer and journalist. His fourth collection of cartoons, “Baddies,” is forthcoming from Melville House.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here:
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.